July 9 (Bloomberg) -- Chef Simon Rogan is famed for smart establishments with some of the best cooking in the U.K.
How about a Rogan cafe with exciting dishes, a warm welcome and affordable prices? There has to be a catch, right?
It’s the location. Mr Cooper’s House & Garden is at the Midland, in Manchester. While I’d go a long way for decent and inexpensive food in a luxury hotel, 200 miles (322 kilometers) from London is a stretch. It is arguable that Paris, at 283 miles, might be a safer bet.
The Midland is a railway hotel, built in the late 19th century as a counterpart to St Pancras Hotel in London. It’s an ornate red-brick building with large rooms and high ceilings.
The Midland has just won U.K. Hotel of the Year. There’s no shortage of history, either. Charles Stewart Rolls met Frederick Henry Royce at the Midland on May 4, 1904, an encounter that led to the formation of Rolls-Royce two years later.
Mr Cooper’s is an odd-looking place, whose faux-garden theme clashes with the grandeur of the hotel. Mr Cooper’s manages to skip direct to old-fashioned without stopping off at retro on the way. It looks like something out of “The Sweeney,” a 1970s U.K. cop show where lunch was what you drank in a pub and sophistication was a glace cherry in your cocktail.
Familiarity and Adventure
You go here for the smiley welcome and the cheery food, which combines familiarity with adventure. (If you are looking for cool, stand outside and shiver.) The prices help, too. Lunch is 15 pounds ($26) for two courses or 19 pounds for three. The early dinner is 19 pounds or 23 pounds.
Compare that with Rogan’s London restaurant, Fera. Lunch there is 45 pounds and the basic tasting menu is 85 pounds. Eat dinner there for much less than 150 pounds a person and clearly you haven’t been dining with me.
At Mr Cooper’s, it’s worth trading up to the a la carte, which is filled with dishes you will probably want to order. Starters include sweet-and-sour mushrooms, galangal panna cotta, frisee, fennel and coconut (7.50 pounds); and spinach and water chestnut wontons with sesame yoghurt dip (5 pounds).
The cooking -- by Gareth Jones -- is of a good standard. While the menu rightly lacks the gastronomic ambition of Rogan’s other restaurant in the Midland, the French, the food is no less enjoyable. I’d go further and say I prefer it, really.
It is accessible and it is fun. Mr Cooper’s is dedicated to giving pleasure rather than to receiving awards.
The dishes, more balanced in themselves than I am, make dizzying reading: Duck caramelized with molasses sugar, sweet potato, curry leaf and raita; or Cumbrian rib steak, truffle pudding and purple potato latkes. Halibut is served on a gratin of peas and edamame, with tarragon and pistachios.
Barbecued salmon comes with crab cakes and tomatoes, with grapefruit and ginger sauce.
The plates are not timid, and international influences are more to the fore than is usual for Rogan. Desserts include chilled lemongrass soup, green tea wafers and coconut sorbet. Or there is Turkish delight syllabub and honey flapjacks.
Wine starts at 17 pounds a bottle and the house Champagne (Veuve Clicquot) is 62 pounds. You’re better off with the Nyetimber (58 pounds) or the Balfour Brut Rose (61 pounds).
It’s not just the food. The service is unusually warm and friendly, without appearing forced. It’s also efficient.
That’s in contrast to the sort of place where waiters appear to be serious and professional yet fail to spot something as elementary as an empty glass, just topping up unnecessarily.
I admit it: I wouldn’t travel for a couple of hours just to eat at Mr Cooper’s. While it is an extraordinary restaurant for Manchester, it would fall somewhere between good and very good in London. The best hope is that Rogan will roll it out and open a branch somewhere nearer to (my) home.
After decades in the gastronomic wilderness, the U.K. has discovered fine dining. It’s fun dining like this that’s harder to find.
Mr Cooper’s House & Garden, Peter Street, The Midland, Manchester, M60 2DS. Information: +44-161-932-4128 or http://www.mrcoopershouseandgarden.co.uk/about/
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines)
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